Avoidance and Having a Seat at the Table

No, sorry, this isn’t going to be a post about food (although I am about 20 minutes away from putting almost no-knead rustic bread in the oven). It’s going to be about privilege.

One of the many messy things about having privilege in any area is the tendency to believe we can fix things. While it’s usually well intentioned, it bears with it the assumption that we’re invited or allowed in the discussion of how to “help” or make things “better” in a group we don’t belong to.

It’s a tendency I struggle a lot with, personally. Part of my cultural baggage as a white woman is the strong urge to smooth everything over, to make everything nice, to make everyone comfortable, to rescue people, to help. I’m not assigning this desire any positive or negative value, just acknowledging that it affects how I move through the world.

I remember watching the movie Malcolm X in the theater when it first came out. When a well-meaning young white girl approached Malcolm X as he left a building on a college campus and asked if there was anything she could do to help, Denzel Washington, playing Malcolm X, didn’t even look at her when he said, flatly, “No.” The black people in the theater with me erupted in cheers and applause. I was utterly mystified. How could they possibly not want our help?

I see similar feelings of confusion and frustration among privileged folks when members of an oppressed or “other” group seek space of their own to come together. Why are we required to share our spaces with them, while they are free to exclude us? I think this is the flip side of the “helpful” privileged thinking: that we always have a seat at the table. That our opinion is always welcome, that our help is, in fact, needed.

Nope. In a culture that systematically and institutionally assigns privileges to certain groups of people, people who are not in those groups deserve a space to not only share their common experience, but be free of the exposure to that privilege (by its presence in the room), even if only for an hour a week, or a weekend retreat, or in entire organizations and institutions dedicated to them.

Part of this urge to help and need to fix things is a fantastic way to avoid doing our own work. If I declare that race doesn’t matter to me, that I am colorblind, I give myself a pass on examining and dismantling the privileges afforded to me because I am white. This goes, too, by the way for the misanthropic old favorite of mine, “I hate everyone equally.” An attempt by me to be witty, but still a denial of my privileges.

I’ve learned over the last several months that there is no shortage of ways to avoid doing white privilege work. My little group started a planning committee in August – six months ago – and has now only met to talk about privilege twice. We had planned a little book group as a way to actually “do the work” while we were working on talking about talking about it, but that never took shape. Now that we’ve met twice, we’ve talked about white privilege … not at all. Our homework last time was enough to prompt more than half the (15-member) group to express misgivings about continuing. And we spent most of the rest of the meeting addressing an interpersonal conflict within the group, which ultimately resulted in a change of venue. (The first meeting was mostly ground rules and logistics.) I am so frustrated about our collective avoidance that I’ve completely disengaged from my own white privilege work this week. I’m pretty sure I can stoke this frustration and anger long enough to avoid my own work for at least another week.

The third meeting is today, and I have more homework to do. I’m supposed to complete some exercises on triggering events in my work on dismantling racism and reflect on a specific time when I spoke up and ineffectively engaged issues out of our dominant group membership.

But my bread just came out of the oven …

3 Responses to “Avoidance and Having a Seat at the Table”

  1. Richard Says:

    I understand that during the Soviet occupation Afghan fighters viewed foreign volunteers with suspicion not solely because they were possible infiltrators. I suppose that for many people, no matter how dire the need, “needing help” is an insulting concept?

    • dcmazzie Says:

      I don’t think it’s quite the same as war and I don’t think it’s suspicion, per se. I think some of it is reaction to the presumption that help is needed and some of it is the added presumption that an outsider can swoop in and fix things – surely they must be more competent/intelligent. While that might actually work in something that requires technical knowledge, it’s understandably unwelcomed in arenas social/cultural competency.

      I hope that makes sense.

      Sista Toldja captures it much better than I do here.

  2. My Mistake: Roseanne on Fat Women « mazzie Says:

    […] was writing, in my mind, a post elaborating a bit on this one, talking more about the assumption that if we call ourselves allies, we have to be accepted as […]

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